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Supporters of gun control lost yesterday. It was not a terrible bill. Expanded background checks would have stopped some future killers from buying guns. It should have passed. But it would have done little to reduce gun violence in America.
"Fighting" Bob La Follette, a progressive senator from Wisconsin, once wrote, "In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf. I believe it is usually better to be beaten and come right back at the next session and make a fight for a thoroughgoing law than to have written on the books a weak and indefinite statute."
La Follette became famous for championing "radical" legislation that had no chance of passing--corporate regulations, labor rights, lobbyist restrictions, and popular election of U.S. senators. He took up his colleagues' time with "pointless" filibusters. He ran three times for president and never even came close to winning.
A century ago, La Follette's tactics infuriated President Theodore Roosevelt. Though their objectives were similar, Roosevelt approached politics one battle at a time. He would size up the opposition, adjust his expectations, and push for a bill that was most likely to pass. "Nothing of value is to be expected from ceaseless agitation for radical and extreme legislation," he preached.
La Follette not only refused to support Roosevelt's compromise measures, he fought against them. "Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf," he argued.
Roosevelt, dumbfounded, concluded that La Follette was nothing but a "shifty self-seeker" whose goal was to "make a personal reputation for himself by screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had."
But Bob La Follette had a plan. The measures he promoted were popular among the public if not in Washington. After he fought as hard (and as loud) as he could, he would collect the names of every politician--Democrat or Republican--who had voted down his bills. He would go into their respective states and deliver speeches about the bills he had tried to pass. Then he would read the roll call, and people would jeer the names of their own senators and congressmen. When the elections came, some of those politicians would lose their seats. The rest would look nervously over their shoulders the next time a "radical" measure came up.
It was long term plan. La Follette had to mobilize voters and transform Congress before he could pass the legislation he wanted. He did not accomplish his objectives during Roosevelt's term or Willam Taft's. But when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the White House, few of the senators and congressmen who had voted against La Follette's reforms remained in office. A coalition of progressive legislators in both parties passed the most sweeping reforms since the Civil War--including all those radical bills La Follette had championed.
If La Follette were around today, he would not lament the gun control bill that was defeated yesterday. He would not even have voted for it. Like Senator Dianne Feinstein, he would have pushed for an assault weapon ban and other "impossible" measures that practical politicians dismiss as futile in the current Congress.
Those measures would lose, of course. But then La Follette would go into the country and speak out against the politicians--Democrat or Republican--who defeated them. In the next session, he would come right back and fight for same legislation. He would keep at it year after year until the people who voted against the bills changed their minds or faded away.
Michael Wolraich is the author of Blowing Smoke (Da Capo, 2010). For more about Bob La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt, sign up for news about his current book project, When the War Began (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).